Rhythm & Flow:
Black Art in America’s Current Exhibit is as Abstract and Material as Water
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.
You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow or it can crash.
Be water, my friend"
- Bruce Lee
In Vincent Harding’s 1981 book, There Is a River, Harding poignantly analogized the natural flow of water to the ongoing Black struggle for social justice in America. Consistently, the late historian recognized the inherent persistence and progress of water over time while promoting the “daring, courageous activities of hundreds of thousands of black people... setting themselves free.”
This month, at Black Art in America Gallery & Gardens, water provides a similarly poignant form of thematic connectivity with the exhibition, Rhythm and Flow: Abstracts and Last Works by James Taylor. Running May 11 through June 10, Rhythm and Flow is a visual meditation on the abstract and the figurative, the former teasing the rhythmic, riverlike expression of African-American abstractionists over time, the latter embracing the underappreciated work of James Taylor, the late artist characterized by critic Kevin Sipp as “one of the preeminent watercolorists of American history” for his skilled use of “watercolor to capture the human spirit and the human portrait.”
Displaying fluid lines and a subtle use of color, Taylor’s paintings grace a corner of the gallery and celebrate his poignant focus on everyday figures in the Atlanta community. Though still, these figures nonetheless appear in flow as if caught in a mere moment of a larger rhythm, emotion, or intention, more fluid than not, less particle than encompassing wave. “Judy” is pensive, slightly melancholy, caught in an ironic moment contemplating the flowers below; “Man in Red” scrutinizes the cigarette protruding from his own lips as if expecting a different result from his previous tote; “The Boxer” is poised, determined and ready to floor anyone who dare step in her path.
“Of course, in jazz, the abstract element is there,” promoted Whitten. “My attraction to jazz was abstraction. I connect very much philosophically with jazz. To me, jazz music is a philosophy, the basis of that philosophy is what I call the expansion of freedom.”
Though predominantly figurative, Taylor’s work is just as philosophical and expansive. “During my convalescence, I began to see the humanity and spirit of the people I encountered, along with colors, smells, and the play of sunlight on things and scenes that were around me,” Taylor once offered, reflecting upon his lengthy battle with cancer. “I discovered a very strong character in people, which is revealed through their challenges, disappointments, and rewards of holding things together through relative obscurity. It is this strength of spirit that I am compelled to express in my paintings.”
Taylor’s strength of spirit kept him alive for more than two decades. In 1992, when the Air Force veteran was diagnosed with a terminal illness and confined to the veterans hospital in Atlanta, he used drawing and painting as therapy and, over time, further developed his talents. Taylor not only lived for another 24 years, but he became one of the top artists in his field, garnering recognition and awards from the likes of the Atlanta Artists Center, Fulton and Dekalb County Public Art Programs, Morris Brown College, The High Museum of Art, and the Atlanta-based African Americans for the Arts. With exhibits at Hampton University Museum in Virginia, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, and the Hammonds House Gallery and Resource Center in Atlanta among others, Taylor instructed Life Drawing classes at the South Dekalb Arts Center and Atlanta Metropolitan College, and was the first Black president of the Georgia Watercolor Society. Today, his works are included in more than a dozen private and public collections across the nation.
African-American abstract artists suffered from an ailment as well, theirs being the historic lack of appreciation for their artistic niche. They faced discrimination and little to no support from galleries and institutions, and were often excluded from mainstream exhibitions and collections as they struggled to showcase their work. Many Black abstractionists also faced financial difficulties as they were unable to sell their work at the same prices as their white counterparts, making it difficult to earn a living from their art.
In the 1950s, though abstract art exploded in popularity, it was largely viewed as a European thing. Consistently, the most recognized Black artists in the field up to that time had studied in Paris and painted in the dominant European style, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, Lois Mailou Jones, and Hale Woodruff.
Then there was Norman Lewis.
Though largely ignored by the mainstream art world, Lewis had already begun experimenting with abstraction in the late 1940s and, inspired by the rhythms and textures of jazz music, he sought to capture the energy and movement of music in his paintings. Though overlooked during his lifetime, Lewis has since been recognized as a pioneer of the Black abstract art movement, paving the way for Alma Thomas, Whitten, Sam Gilliam, and countless others. Thomas, who began painting abstracts in the 1950s, employed bright colors and bold shapes to create vibrant, dynamic compositions. Her work was influenced by her background in education and interest in the scientific themes she incorporated into her art.
Today, because of the river of progress flowing through the field, there are many talented Black abstract artists working in a variety of styles and media, pushing the boundaries of what is representative and possible, as highlighted by the works of Cox, Walton, Abdul-Musawwir, Cole, Downs, Jennie C. Jones, Mark Bradford, James Little, Lorna Simpson, Martin Puryear, Odili Donald Odita, Kevin Beasley, and many others. In Rhythm and Flow: Abstracts and Last Works by James Taylor, such energies align with the fluid watercolors of Taylor to create a dynamic visual experience that questions the assumed boundary between the abstract and the figurative. At best, this boundary is tenuous given all is in motion, our universe, our world, the very atoms that compose us. Perhaps a still image is never truly still. Perhaps all we can aspire to as artists, as humans, is to capture a moment in time, a not so still image, and call it still as if freezing the sands of time, catching lightning in a bottle.
Taylor’s watercolors captured these impossible moments well despite their perpetual motion, their apparent flow. And, fittingly, with Rhythm and Flow, it is the spirit of water—the ubiquitous, connective, rhythmic substance that makes life possible—that brings together the abstract and the material, the natural and the human, the particle and the wave, while seamlessly guiding the way.
“I think there is a kind of vocabulary within the human spirit that crosses cultures and boundaries and all of those things,” offered late abstractionist, John Scott, in the documentary, Persistence of Vision. “And you can see it without people ever having dealt with each other.”
“I think there’s certain things that make the human spirit feel good, comfortable,” emphasized Scott, noting that “if you listen to musicals, and music and rhythms, you find certain similarities that we celebrate. If you think about our sadness, if you go into a southern Baptist church in a funeral celebration, a Black one, and you hear that choir and that note comes from the back of that choir, that C above high C that has no verbalization, it’s just a sound, and the hair stands up on your neck… that’s the epitome of abstraction,” stressed Scott. “But you can still hear that by those women in Iraq when they’re lamenting the dead, by African women when they’re yelling, by Chinese women.”
“It’s a primal human thing that’s totally abstract,” concludes Scott.
“But we all understand its meaning.”